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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Should murder accomplices face execution?

14568_felonymurder_2 An execution last month in Mississippi and another scheduled for this month in Texas have reignited a debate over whether the death penalty should be given to those who participate in killings — but do not personally carry them out.

Dale Bishop was executed July 23 in Mississippi for his role in the 1998 murder of an acquaintance who was beaten to death with a claw hammer along a rural road near Tupelo. But Bishop did not strike the fatal blows. According to uncontested trial testimony, Bishop held and kicked the victim while another man, Jessie Johnson, fatally attacked him with the hammer. Johnson is serving a life sentence without parole.

In Texas, death-row inmate Jeffery Wood this month also could be executed for a murder he did not commit. Wood is scheduled to die Aug. 21 in connection with the 1996 shooting of a convenience store clerk about 100 miles west of Austin, but according to undisputed court testimony, he was sitting in a pickup truck outside the store when the murder occurred. Daniel Reneau, who shot and killed the clerk, was executed by Texas in 2002 for the murder.

Bishop and Wood both were convicted under little-known state laws that allow accomplices in some felonies that result in murder to be prosecuted as killers — even if they were not directly responsible for killing anyone.

The laws are part of a broader legal principle in the United States known as the “felony murder rule,” which also allows those who unintentionally kill someone during serious felonies to be charged with first-degree murder, instead of the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter. All but four states — Hawaii, Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio— have some version of the felony murder rule, according to a February analysis commissioned by the Connecticut General Assembly.[Mark Godsey]

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